Saturday, March 30, 2019

Symphonic Science

Music Directors often schedule program selections based on underlying themes to heighten audience interest. So it was with our most recent Dubuque Symphony Orchestra program. Many composers gain inspiration for their musical compositions by blending natural, historic, visual, and emotional dimensions with their creative offerings. In this way, music is a divine gift for composers and listeners alike enabling them to express their innermost perceptions and longings.

In our neighborhood the Dubuque, IA Symphony Orchestra has just completed the last of four concerts in their 2018/2019 season. The themes were “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water”—one concert for each of the four “classical elements” traditionally originating with thinkers in the Greek culture of 2500 years ago. During the March 24 concert “Water” was celebrated.      

Many other cultures in the ancient world speculated that different types of matter were composed of just a few simple elements. By the 18th century, scientific thinking had advanced concerning the physical properties of matter. Since the onset of the Scientific Revolution dating back to the 16th century, the formal term “scientist” originated more recently, 200 years ago. Prior to this, practitioners of science were known as “natural philosophers.” In the 18th century, natural philosophers began to use empirical methods based on formal experience and experimentation to investigate, identify, and isolate elemental substances. About 22 chemical elements were discovered during that century. In the 19th and 20th centuries knowledge of the identity of chemical elements increased dramatically. Now about 100 chemical elements are known—unique substances whose atoms comprise all known substances. There are millions of physical mixtures of these 100 elements and thousands of compounds composed of chemical combinations of the same 100 elements.

Greek philosophical thinkers proposed existence of only four classical elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These concepts preceded proposals of scientists who endorse modern chemical concepts of 100 elements, each composed of different submicroscopic atoms. How far has humanity’s scientific knowledge come in 2.5 millennia!

With the introduction above, we return to our symphony orchestra concert science experience. Our talented and personable director, William Intriligator, introduced the concert theme—Water—reminding the audience that nearby areas of the Midwest to our west and north are experiencing a lot of water this spring. Snowmelt has combined with heavy rains due to a rare meteorological event called a “bomb cyclone.” In some areas of the US Midwest the floods have been historic and tragic. Planetary climate ordinarily provides the human population with “a place to thrive.” We acknowledge that on rare occasions meteorologic events have severe impacts. Notwithstanding, many past posts have touted our planet as “a place to thrive.” 

The theme On Water in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra concert #4 brought to mind many reminders of scientific truth, sometimes with theological overtones. My personal enjoyment of the performance took me beyond mere passive listening. The program included well-known compositions with a water theme by Johann Strauss, G. F. Handel, Michael Daugherty, Bedrich Smetana, and Ottorina Respighi. We continue our discussion of “symphonic science” below, highlighting three dimensions of science which came to mind as my wife and I savored the “On Water” program from our balcony seats: (1) Consciousness, (2) Creativity, and (3) Sensory Perception.

Consciousness - The ability of famous composers to consciously perceive their environment and synthesize their experiences with meaningful musical expressions is a noteworthy human talent. The phenomenon of consciousness is not as well-understood as some believe. One definition: Personal awareness of one’s surroundings. What is involved in personal awareness? Much research has been produced by behavioral scientists in their effort to address and explain how consciousness works in the human body. One famous cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, has coined the phrase “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” He may agree with cognitive scientist Alva Noe who wrote that conscious creativity and decision making is “traceable to the continual storm of electrical activity in the complex neural network called our brain.” This statement is interesting and factual but not adequately explanatory.    

Creativity - We are impelled to marvel at the creativity of gifted composers of music. Why are some composers able to produce a wealth of wondrous melodies and auditory effects and still follow the rules of musical composition? The creativity of musical prodigies is not well understood. Are prodigies born or raised? There is no satisfactory reductive explanation for the tiny segment of composers on the most creative corner of the musical bell-curve.

Sensory Perception - Concertgoers revel in enjoyment of work produced by the most talented composers or performers. We also recognize the ability of concertgoers to enjoy the wonderful auditory stimulation of the rich orchestral blend and the visual stimulation of string sections bowing in visual synchronization. Audition and vision are bodily senses understood and explained by scientists.

When we return from a music venue and compare notes with fellow concertgoers, we inquire how they “enjoyed the concert.” There are many dimensions of enjoyment—sound, sight, and science. We give thanks to the Creator for our ability to savor all three.  




Friday, March 22, 2019

Weather Is All About Heat

Many areas of the United States have been deluged with cold weather, snow, and ice during the winter of 2018-19. Many Midwest regions are experiencing serious flooding resulting from recent heavy rains and snow melt locally and to our north, not to mention ice jams on streams resulting from intense past stretches of cold weather. We highlighted the rare January 2019 stratospheric polar vortex as well as the more common tropospheric polar vortexes, ordinary “cold snaps” which have chilled our regions during northern latitude winters as long as we can remember. As astronomical spring dawns upon the Northern Hemisphere, residents look forward to an increased supply of heat. 

Planet Earth is located in a comfortable “habitable zone” with respect to its temperature. It is not so cold that all of the Earth’s water exists in solid form. Neither is it too hot for all of Earth’s water to evaporate into a gas. Earth’s life depends upon a great majority of its water remaining in liquid state. The temperature range where this is possible is an incredibly narrow 180º (32º to 212º) on the Fahrenheit temperature scale. 

A volume of 326 million cubic miles of liquid water is found in the oceans. In addition 7.25 million cubic miles of ice rests atop Antarctica and about 696,000 cubic miles of ice is found above Greenland. Arctic ice comprises only about 4150 cubic miles. Solid ice shares the stage with all-important life-giving liquid water.

What about Earth’s water in vapor form? Beneficial liquid water could not be distributed around the Earth to sustain our lives without the presence and action of water vapor in the atmosphere! Liquid water evaporates, later condensing back to liquid water in the form of cloud droplets and ultimately falling as rain. Earth residents are recipients of life-sustaining precipitation for their crops and a multitude of other needs. Dual processes of evaporation and condensation provide transfer of heat and transportation of water from place to place. Evaporation removes heat; condensation returns heat. The process repeats over and over.

One source creatively described Earth’s atmosphere as the “superhighway used to move water around the globe.” Heat energy is constantly moving from one location to another, helping to sustain our lives. In the process life-giving water vapor enters the atmosphere from streams, ponds, lakes, and oceans. Eventually the water vapor forms clouds and precipitation falls. In the paragraph above we described the water cycle, an often under-appreciated marvel of the world of nature. Water volume in the atmosphere has been estimated at 3100 cubic miles—only 0.001% of all water on Earth.

The Sun is the driver of weather as a supplier of radiant energy. About half of the radiant energy is infrared radiation. When infrared strikes the surface of our planet it is absorbed and the planet gains heat energy in the form of increased motion of molecules. The heat is then redistributed in our atmosphere and drives our weather systems: Earth is always “working” to equalize intensity of differing zones of heat. Earth’s atmospheric systems come and go, supplying our enormous variety of weather.

Earth is blessed by a life-giving atmosphere. If there were no atmosphere, there would be no weather. Other planets in our solar system as well as exoplanets in distant star systems may possess entirely different atmospheres or none at all. Planet Earth is unique in possessing hundreds of fine-tuned physical characteristics. Our planet’s millions of separate species inhabit a world distinctively created for their lavish existence. Earth’s abundant, unique physical characteristics and its plentiful, distinctive life comprise a virtually unmatched complement.

Most translations of Isaiah 45:18 propose the complementary relationship of the Earth’s physical system and its variety of life. We quote this verse from the New International Version: For this is what the Lord says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited—he says: I am the Lord, and there is no other.   




Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Seasonal Trivia

One of the well-known questions in meteorology is “What is the cause of seasons?” Many related secondary questions occur. Are any facts about the motions of Planet Earth, its speed in orbit, its path through space, and the precise location it occupies at any given time, truly trivial? These questions connect with the cause of seasons. 

Before one proceeds very far with formal education, teachers introduce scientific lessons on astronomy and weather. With respect to the cause of seasons, weather and astronomy are integrally related. Simple concepts are discussed first, such as the basic facts of our solar system—our Earth as a sphere and its motions of rotation and revolution. These facts and motions are not perceptible to observers on Earth. But our lives depend primarily on perception of real motion—motions that actually occur. In astronomy students must become aware of the difference between real and apparent motion—not always an easy distinction. They must learn that most perceived motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars are not real. Rather, they are apparent, caused by the real motion of Earth’s rotation on its axis and the real revolution of Earth in orbit around the Sun.

How do educators deal with the challenge? They use examples of the distinction between real and apparent in real life: One of the best examples is a video of how occupants on a train interpret motion of passengers waiting on the platform to board. When people outside the train change positions, is their motion real? or is it apparent? If outside passengers actually move, their motion is real. If the platform passengers do not actually change positions when the train starts to move imperceptibly, their motion is only apparent. An added challenge arises if both train passengers and platform occupants actually move. 

Similar problems of distinguishing real from apparent motion occur in determining seasonal beginnings and endings of astronomical spring, summer, winter, and autumn. (Readers may review the precise relationship of “points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space” related to Planet Earth as discussed in our previous 3/6/19 post.) Why is astronomical summer 94 days long while astronomical winter is only 89 days long? This curious fact relates to the speed of revolution of Earth in its orbit. Since our planet possesses an elliptical orbit, there is a position where the Earth travels slightly slower. This is called aphelion, the point of maximum distance. There is also perihelion, the point of minimum distance, when Earth travels faster by 3.34%. At aphelion, the point of maximum distance, Earth travels somewhat slower.

At aphelion the Sun’s gravity is slightly weaker so the Earth does not “fall” as quickly. Earth’s orbital speed is slightly diminished. When Earth approaches the Sun a little closer at perihelion, the planet “falls” more quickly. Its orbital speed increases slightly. The difference in speed in units of miles/sec is 18.21 mi/sec vs 18.82 mi/sec. Earth hurtles along in its orbit, on average, at 67,000 mph. These statistics fascinate most students of astronomy and weather trivia.

Our home planet is actually somewhat closer to the sun in winter, 91 million miles compared with 94.5 million miles. This seems counterintuitive. Perihelion occurs in early January and aphelion in early July. The effects of Earth’s 23.4º axis tilt are far more significant in terms of the onset of summer and winter environments. Likewise, astronomical summer’s 94 days compared with astronomical winter’s 89 days is essentially insignificant because few residents are counting the days.

When one first learns that we live on a spherical planet, that fact is difficult to discover from a personal physical point of view. We may be overcome with wonder. “How do we know?” some may inquire. Similar questions may be generated as they discover most motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars are not real, but apparent. Skilled teachers should use these occasions to teach young scholars modern methods of science discovery.

Most planets in our Solar System and the thousands of extrasolar planets discovered so far have axis tilts. Earth’s axis tilt makes life for 7.5 billion residents possible. As of March 1, 2019, 3999 confirmed exoplanets in 2987 planetary systems have been discovered in our Milky Way Galaxy. A Wikipedia entry states there are 200 billion stars in our galaxy of which 11 billion may possess habitable planets. This figure is incredibly optimistic. Of 3999 confirmed planets not one has come close to Earth conditions which support complex, wondrous life of millions of different species. There are hundreds of unique, fine-tuned, life-supporting parameters on Earth. Absence of any of these conditions would preclude the possibility of life. 

Intuitively, we believe in Intelligent Design. We believe the thousands of conditions on Planet Earth are indicators of Divine Design, even if some of the factual knowledge may seem trivial. Human intuition points to a deeper truth:





Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Meteorolgical or Astronomical Spring?

“Happy Spring!” Our household thermometer recorded an overnight low temperature of -5ºF on March 3. The median temperature on that day was thirty degrees below normal. “Take heart,” we tell our friends. “In several days we will enjoy two weeks of normal temperatures, according to the long range forecast.”  We do not cite these figures to become a source for weather statistics in the upper Midwest. Rather, our desire is to improve general weather literacy. We are now in meteorological spring, but we may experience surprising vagaries of the season no matter which season we claim to inhabit!

As a prelude to our discussion of spring and other seasons we recommend you review the link from our post of 10/27/17:

Just when we thought we understood pertinent facts about the spring season, we discover scientists have defined two spring seasons: meteorological spring and astronomical spring. Calendar-wise, there is some overlap between the two. Meteorological spring runs from March 1 to May 31. Those three months are characterized by generally rising, pleasant temperatures on average. By calling our three Gregorian calendar months—March, April, and May—meteorological (weather-related) spring, we may be certain which time frames we compare from one year to another. There is no guarantee that temperatures will always rise from one day to the next, or that we will never receive a bitter atypical cold spell or warm spell. We deal with average conditions as meteorological spring progresses.

Our above link to “Earth Without Seasons” stressed the effect of Earth’s seasons on Earth’s living things, including the occurrence of unpredictable weather. Beyond those there are many other more astronomical effects of Earth’s axial tilt, Earth’s elliptical orbit, and the 41,000 year wobble in Earth’s axis of rotation. Below we discuss why the astronomical seasons commence approximately March 21 (spring), June 21 (summer), September 21 (autumn), and December 21 (winter). As an example, why does the first day of astronomical spring occur at precisely 5:58 PM EST on March 20 in 2019? Meteorological spring (the “getting warmer” season) correlates with dates on the man-made 16th century Gregorian calendar.

Astronomical spring is related to precise points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space as Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun. These are all mathematically determined. Specific times of occurrence of events correlate with dates on the Gregorian calendar. The first day of meteorological spring is about three weeks prior to the vernal (spring) equinox—the first day of astronomical spring.

What is the vernal equinox? If you live in the northern hemisphere you have noticed that on December 21 the sun does not rise very far above Earth’s horizon at noon. By March 21 its noon position has gradually risen about halfway to its maximum, and by June 21 it has risen to its highest point. The Sun follows a path through the sky called the ecliptic. It does not really move, but it appears to move because we are moving around the Sun viewing it from constantly changing positions. The Sun, traveling along the ecliptic, traces a complete 360º path through the sky in one year. On about March 21 each year the apparent path of the sun crosses an imaginary circle called the celestial equator, made by extending the Earth’s equator infinitely out into celestial space. It intersects the imaginary celestial sphere at an infinite distance. On this date the Sun is exactly halfway to its highest point in the sky (or on the celestial sphere). The result is day and night are of equal length on that day. Before or after that date, day length is shorter or longer than night. This occasion is called the spring equinox (equinox = day and night of equal length). The term also refers to a date on the calendar or a point in space.           

On June 21 when the sun reaches its highest northern point on the ecliptic, we enjoy longest days and shortest nights. We have reached the date of the summer solstice (solstice = sun stands ‘still’).  After this date the Sun gradually begins to descend toward the celestial equator. This marks the end of astronomical spring, and the beginning of astronomical summer. Likewise, on about September 21 astronomical summer ends; astronomical autumn begins. We then observe the autumnal equinox. On about December 21, astronomical autumn ends; astronomical winter begins: we have reached the winter solstice. Our planet’s well-known axis tilt is responsible.

The meteorological grouping of seasons in three month blocks conveniently highlights environmental effects of our weather cycles. The astronomical season groupings of three month blocks of time beginning, respectively, on about the 21st of March, June, September, and December are, instead, based entirely upon celestial points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space.   

Our universe is coherent and orderly. Meteorological and astronomical seasons both amply illustrate coherence and cyclical orderliness. Both sciences, meteorology and astronomy, manifest the glory of the Creator and His loving physical provisions for our temporal existence.